Victim’s Spirit Invoked to Solve Case
The arrest warrant was burning a hole in Det. Abe Alonzo’s pocket. He knew he needed to turn it over to the fugitive unit, but Alonzo wanted one last chance to nab the guy himself.
He had worked too long and hard on this one to let it go now.
Alonzo swung his unmarked car onto Colfax Avenue, past the tattoo parlors and bars that had turned the corridor near downtown Denver into a hangout for vagrants and drunks. Maybe, just maybe, his suspect would be roaming the street that was one of his favorite haunts.
Then he saw someone: A short man, coat bundled up to his neck, knit cap tugged to his eyebrows. Alonzo pulled into the Conoco, got out and flashed his badge.
“Police. Let me see some identification.” The man raised his head.
Alonzo could hardly believe his eyes, or his luck. Nor could the patrolman who soon arrived at the scene.
“This guy’s wanted for murder,” the stunned officer said.
Still standing on the street, Alonzo punched Bob Ecoffey’s number into his cellphone. He couldn’t wait to break the news to his friend, the man who had introduced him to the case that would consume them both.
How to tell him that after 27 years, their first suspect was in custody?
“Bob,” he said simply. “I’ve got Arlo.”
The arrest came on her birthday: March 27, 2003. Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash would have been 58 if she had not been shot in the head and left to die in a lonely ravine on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Ecoffey, an Oglala Sioux who grew up at Pine Ridge, assured Alonzo the timing was more than mere coincidence. “It was meant to happen,” he said. “It was always meant to happen.”
Once, Alonzo would have been skeptical. Anna Mae changed all that.
A member of the Mi’kmaq Tribe of Canada, she came to Pine Ridge in the early 1970s when the American Indian Movement was gaining strength with its calls to reassert tribal sovereignty.
She participated in the 1973 occupation of the village of Wounded Knee, S.D., a 71-day standoff between AIM activists and federal agents. Working both as a guard and supply courier, she established herself as a key player in the group.
The FBI considered AIM an extremist organization, and planted spies and snitches in the group. In early 1975, the bodyguard of an AIM co-founder revealed himself as an FBI informant.
Doubt soon shrouded Anna Mae -- a Canadian “outsider” who always seemed to be around when busts went down.
Tensions escalated in June 1975 when two FBI agents searching for a robbery suspect at Pine Ridge were killed in a gunfight with AIM members. That November, police stopped a motor home carrying the alleged shooter, activist Leonard Peltier. Peltier eventually was convicted in the deaths.
Anna Mae was among those riding in the motor home when it was pulled over, and rumors circulated that perhaps she had tipped off authorities. She was arrested, but after being released on her own recognizance, she sought refuge at an AIM safe house in Denver.
One month later, in December 1975, an AIM security contingent kidnapped Anna Mae from the Denver house, Alonzo and Ecoffey contend. She was taken to South Dakota and interrogated, the investigators say, then driven to a remote ridge on the reservation and killed.
In the months and years that followed, the investigation languished. Many Indians considered the FBI to be the enemy and were reluctant to cooperate. Some even blamed the agency for Anna Mae’s death, charging that it had fueled false rumors that she was an informant to turn AIM members against one another.
There were allegations of a cover-up after a coroner initially ruled that Anna Mae died of exposure. An independent autopsy found she had been shot. Federal authorities have always denied wrongdoing.
Four grand juries examined the case without returning an indictment. With each passing year, it seemed less likely that anyone would face charges in Anna Mae’s slaying.
Then in 2003, the improbable happened: Two former AIM members were indicted on charges of first-degree murder in Anna Mae’s kidnapping and death. The alleged triggerman, John Graham, is jailed in Canada pending extradition. Accused conspirator Arlo Looking Cloud, a homeless man captured that March day in Denver, is scheduled to stand trial in February.
Investigators contend they were instructed to kill Anna Mae. Former AIM leader Russell Means, who previously testified before grand jurors, has pointed the finger at senior AIM members.
Organization spokesman Vernon Bellecourt calls the accusations “ridiculous” and insists the case is part of an ongoing war by the federal government “to silence and discredit the leaders of AIM.”
Whatever the truth is, it may finally come out.
But what broke through the distrust that had stalled the investigation?
The work of a few men driven by the spirit of a woman. One man, an Indian, would dedicate much of his life to the probe. Another, a non-Indian, would risk his career.
It had been said that Anna Mae couldn’t rest until her killers were brought to justice.
Neither would the detectives.
The young officer was sure he heard it: a woman, crying, over the intercom.
Bob Ecoffey was only 21, a college student working as a guard at the Pine Ridge jail. He checked the female cell block, but everyone seemed fine. He looked inside the juvenile ward, but no one was there.
Still, Ecoffey was haunted by the weeping. “If you’re an Indian,” he said, “it means something.”
He confided in his aunt, who sought the advice of a medicine man and returned to her nephew with a prophecy that would redirect his life: There was a woman who was killed before her time. You might not understand now, his aunt said, but one day you will be in a position to help her.
It was early 1976, around the time Anna Mae’s frozen body was discovered.
About five years later, as a special agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Ecoffey started looking into the still-unsolved slaying. But it wasn’t until he was named South Dakota’s U.S. marshal in 1994 that the earlier message began to make sense.
Suddenly, he was in a position to help. He was the first Indian in the state appointed U.S. marshal. As boss, he could investigate what he wanted and go where he needed.
But there was something else: After years of refusing to cooperate with the FBI, the people of Pine Ridge began going to Ecoffey with information.
“The FBI were like fish out of water at Pine Ridge,” said Paul DeMain, editor of the publication News From Indian Country. “Ecoffey is Lakota. He has family. He has friends. What he did was more in the vein of the old cop who would sit down and have a cup of coffee at the table. He became a conduit.”
Ecoffey revived the case. Working with BIA investigator Mitch Pourier and FBI agent Jim Graf, Ecoffey pored over old reports, reinterviewed potential witnesses, uncovered new leads. He traveled the country and to Canada.
“It seemed to be an obsession with him,” said Pourier. "... This matter may have been filed away, but Bob kept it going.”
But some people questioned his motives. Messages posted on the Internet suggested Ecoffey was using the case as a vendetta against AIM and Peltier. As a police intern, Ecoffey had worked alongside the agents killed in 1975.
But Ecoffey was undaunted. Finding Anna Mae’s murderers became a personal quest. When hundreds gathered in 1999 for a march to protest alleged treaty violations and unsolved crimes on the reservation, Ecoffey carried a sign that read, “Justice for Anna Mae.”
“Most people knew I was doing it for the right reasons ... for Anna Mae and her family,” said Ecoffey, now head of the BIA’s law enforcement branch in Albuquerque, N.M. “It was something that was meant to be.”
The medicine man had taught him that.
The kidnapping that set the murder in motion allegedly occurred in Denver, but Ecoffey didn’t have good contacts there. During a trip in 1994, he met Det. Abe Alonzo, who was assigned to escort the visiting U.S. marshal around to check out leads.
The son of a Mexican farm worker who grew up in Denver, Alonzo knew little of Indian activism and even less of Indian faith. When Ecoffey first explained how Anna Mae’s spirit had come to him, Alonzo wondered if he believed in voodoo.
But in Ecoffey, he also saw something he liked. He had expected a stiff in a suit and a tie. What he got was a nice guy in a vest and boots, sporting a ponytail.
“You know,” Ecoffey told him one day, “I could really use some help.”
It would become Alonzo’s first and only homicide case.
In 31 years on the force, Alonzo worked patrol and property crimes; he trained rookies, and he served in the intelligence bureau, providing dignitary protection and security.
Alonzo studied the players in Anna Mae’s case, tracked down addresses and helped interview potential witnesses. One was Looking Cloud, who at one point accompanied Alonzo and Ecoffey to what was described as the murder scene in South Dakota and allegedly disclosed details of the crime.
There, on the windy ridge, Alonzo also came to believe that something bigger was driving the investigation. It was a hot summer day, well over 100 degrees. But as Alonzo approached the place where she died, a chill shot through him. The hair on his arms stood up.
“That was Anna Mae’s spirit,” Ecoffey said. “She knows you’re here to help her.”
Ecoffey pulled some tobacco from a cigar and flung it into the breeze as an offering to Anna Mae.
“It gave me a little bit more strength,” Alonzo recalled. “It was like, ‘I’ve got to finish this -- we’ve got to finish this -- for her sake.’ ”
Their partnership was interrupted when a supervisor pulled Alonzo off the case, turning it over to homicide. The police chief reversed the decision a few months later.
Alonzo and Ecoffey believed they knew how the slaying unfolded and who was involved. They needed corroboration. Alonzo took the unusual step of posting a letter to American Indians on the Internet, appealing for information.
“I know and have felt Anna Mae’s spirit,” he wrote.
With trial pending, the investigators can’t discuss what finally broke open the case. They will say only that a source was developed that gave them enough to secure the indictment. The 2002 appointment of James McMahon as U.S. attorney in South Dakota also helped, they say. The federal prosecutor’s office “didn’t look at this as being a political case,” Ecoffey said.
Looking Cloud’s supporters insist he has been made the scapegoat by overzealous investigators.
“Arlo is innocent. He’s a helpless, harmless person,” said his cousin, Bernice Bull Bear. “All these people got together and they decided who was going to take the fall.”
Looking Cloud’s attorney, Tim Rensch, acknowledges his client was present at the slaying, but says he took no part.
“He didn’t help with the murder. It was a complete surprise,” Rensch said, adding that he believes prosecutors “were probably hoping to use him as a stepladder to others.”
Anna Mae’s relatives view the upcoming trial as the first step toward bringing down anyone else who was involved or might have ordered the killing.
“At least a hundred people have lived in fear of retaliation of ending up like Anna Mae if they spoke publicly about her murderers
The investigators see something else: a chance to put the past, and an unsettled spirit, to rest.
“Maybe finding those responsible for her death will bring some peace to Anna Mae,” said Alonzo.
“That,” added Ecoffey, “is true justice.”